In the Name of the Father Figure: Tom Grimes

When he was a young man, Tom Grimes sat down to Sunday dinner with his parents and told them he was going to be a writer. His father stood up from the table. 'You can go to hell,' he said, and then he left the room.


'My mother told me to go apologize to him,' Grimes recalled during a recent interview. 'They wanted me to be a dentist.

They didn't even realize I was too stupid in the hard sciences for that; I couldn't do algebra, physics. None of that stuck. But they didn't get it. I think I would've gotten the same reaction if I'd told them that I'd given it a lot of thought and what I really wanted to do with the rest of my life was be a heroin addict.'


Perhaps it's no wonder, then, that when proffered the fatherly affections of writer Frank Conroy, Grimes was at first gun-shy and then eager, almost puppylike, in his adoration of his teacher and friend. The two met at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1989, when Grimes was a grad student and Conroy was two years into his lengthy tenure as the workshop's director. Their relationship is the raison d'┬Étre for Mentor: A Memoir (Tin House Books), from which Grimes, the author of five novels, reads at Garcia Street Books on Tuesday, Aug. 10. And though his friendship with Conroy—best known for his 1967 autobiography, Stop-Time—is at the core of Mentor, it is far from the only tale Grimes tells as he covers 16 years of his life in an economic 241 pages. In the memoir, Grimes comes off as supremely confident about only one thing: his desire to write, his need to write. Once he made the decision to be a writer, he wrote four hours a day, five days a week, for 10 years. About the time he began publishing in small literary journals, his wife suggested he apply to graduate school. Grimes, who was working as a waiter, agreed and applied to four programs. He was accepted at Iowa and Emerson, rejected from Gainesville and Syracuse. In addition to a rejection letter from Syracuse, he received his manuscript back, which had apparently been graded by graduate program staff. He received a 'B-, boring.' Conroy called Grimes personally to award him Iowa's top scholarship—$10,000 a year, and he didn't have to do anything but write. Grimes turned it down to teach undergraduate literature—he wanted to gain teaching experience. (He has directed the master's degree program in creative writing at Texas State University for many years.)


Grimes is on his annual five-week vacation to Santa Fe; this year, he spent several days at Stepbridge Studios, recording the audio version of Mentor for 'You get locked in a booth by yourself with a mike here'—he indicated a space about an inch from his face—'and the pages here'—he put his hand at his chest. 'You can't move; they can't hear the sound of rustling. I came home whipped every day, totally talked out. It takes a lot out of you in ways you wouldn't think.'


One of the threads in Mentor follows Grimes' descent into madness—his first bout with manic-depression, an acutely delusional phase in which he thought he was being hunted by the FBI for an ancient transgression that barely qualified as legally criminal, let alone a federal crime. Grimes' sister is also manic-depressive. Her suicide attempt, recollected in the memoir, is singular in its graphic, empathetic, unsentimental rendering, which has an appropriately oppressive quality, as if the moment lasts forever, though it is over in less than a page. Grimes continues to struggle with balance and is grateful for the right combination of medication, which he believes allowed him to write Mentor. 'Meds change your brain. It took me years to work out a style that fit my current brain waves. I can't write the way I used to. That voice is gone; that person is gone.'


Throughout Mentor, Grimes emphasizes the importance of the sentence. He favors compression, music, and rhythm and is as concerned with word choice as most poets. 'To me, if I don't get that across, I've failed as a writer.' He revealed that he wrote his third novel, City of God, in iambic pentameter. 'That's a lot of pressure to put on a particular word. You can't be careless. My editor, he said not every sentence had to be perfect, and I'm like, 'Yes it does,' because a reader can tell when the writing goes slack. Sound is meaning.' It was just after writing City of God that Grimes experienced his first major depressive episode. Besides being consumed with guilt for his imagined criminal past, he became obsessed with whether Conroy liked his new manuscript. Grimes was out of grad school and teaching in Texas, but he and Conroy were closer than ever. When Grimes first went to Iowa and the tradition was to go to the bar after the workshop, he was hesitant at first to engage Conroy in conversation. Over time, the only person Conroy talked to at the bar was Grimes and sometimes Charlie—as the writer Charles D'Ambrosio is referred to in the book—with whom Grimes remains good friends.


'I never really thought of Frank as a mentor while I was writing [Mentor]; I just called it 'The Frank Book,'' Grimes said, explaining that the title came later, after an initial suggestion from Lee Montgomery at Tin House put the book in motion. 'He was a father figure, and then he became a friend,' Grimes said of Conroy. 'At first, I thought the love would be withdrawn if I didn't do exactly what he wanted. Here's the father who says, 'You're a failure; you'll never write a good book,' and here's Frank, who says, 'This is the life you can lead.' I actually miss him more now that the book is done, because he came so alive for a while when I was writing about him. His death is no longer abstract. Now I really understand that he's not in my life.'    

This article orginally appeared in Pasatiempo on 08/06/2010